Absent from the Debate: Campaign Finance Reform

October 16,  2019

Yet another Democratic primary debate, yet another empty exercise, because no candidate even mentioned the issue that holds the key to every other policy question they discussed: robust campaign finance reform. None of the bold policies that some candidates proposed – Medicare-for-All, a wealth tax, Biden’s plan to close $600 billion of unneeded tax loopholes and end the preferential tax treatment of capital gains in the stock market, the Green New Deal – has the slightest chance of being enacted as long as wealthy donors, who would have to pay the taxes needed to fund these policies, pay for nearly every politician’s election campaign. Yes, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have funded their campaigns almost entirely from small donations, so they are at least free to advocate such bold policies. But if elected they will still have to deal with a Congress whose members were almost all elected thanks to massive support from high-dollar donors, the same donors they will need to go back to during their reelection campaigns in the 2020 midterms.

Tom Steyer spoke eloquently and repeatedly about how corporations have bought our government, as did Elizabeth Warren, but neither candidate offered a solution. On this subject Warren said only that she herself takes no corporate PAC donations and doesn’t pursue high-dollar donors, and challenged other politicians to do the same. But realistically only a handful of candidates, usually at the presidential level, have high enough of a profile to draw a sufficient number of small donations. If you go to Warren’s website, the main policy reform she proposes is a constitutional amendment to overturn Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United, and other Supreme Court cases that have eviscerated our campaign finance regulations. But given Republicans’ unanimous and adamant opposition to all campaign finance regulation, such a constitutional amendment is a sheer impossibility. Luckily, all is not lost. A highly effective campaign finance reform, one which the Supreme Court probably cannot strike down, already exists as a fully written bill, submitted near the end of the last Congress.

I refer to Rep. Ro Khanna’s Democracy Dollars Act, inspired in part by a 2002 book written by two Yale Law School professors, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres, titled Voting with Dollars. Under Khanna’s bill, the federal government would give each registered voter a virtual account of campaign cash – say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters could not withdraw the cash for personal use, but would instead go online and assign it to the candidates of their choice. With 200 million registered voters, this translates to $10 billion in public funds for election campaigns, outweighing even the massive $6.5 billion in private money spent during the 2016 federal elections (Congress and Presidency). Every serious candidate would be able to fund his or her campaign mostly or entirely from funds given by the voters. Currently, wealthy donors pay the piper and so they call the tune. Khanna’s bill makes the voters into the donors, collectively even bigger donors than the notorious Koch brothers.

While candidates challenging incumbents would need private donations to get their campaigns off the ground, at some point every candidate would face a choice: opt into the Democracy Dollars system, and forswear all future private donations, or else fund his or her entire campaign with private money. Candidates who chose the second course would be justly and ferociously accused of preferring to serve wealthy donors instead of serving the American people. This immense political pressure would drive a lot of the private money out of our politics, and go a long way toward making the United States a democracy again, instead of the plutocracy it is today. So why is no one talking about this common-sense, game-changing reform?

As a practical matter, many candidates can’t make democracy dollars a leading issue, because they already depend so heavily on high-dollar donors. It would be awkward to go to their donors and say: “give me tons of money so I can push through this reform, which will let me never have to take your calls again.” But Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have no such problem. They rely chiefly on small donors. And the democracy dollars reform fits seamlessly into their larger messages. Both correctly and often eloquently say the political system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and corporations. Talking about democracy dollars lets them educate the public about exactly how the system has been rigged, and how they will go about fixing it. And without the democracy dollars reform, few of their progressive policies has a chance of getting through Congress. So what are they waiting for?